Sunday, January 17, 2010

Last semester

Christmas-decorations in the suburbs of Detroit can take on gargantuan proportions.

A new year, a new semester, a new blogpost - finally. Let's just say that blogging isn't on the top of my priority list when I also have classes, an internship, work and a girlfriend. But I do want to keep you informed about my life here, so let me give you a quick summary of last semester.

I started an internship with Taylor-DeJongh, an financial advisory firm that has an extensive track record of helping companies and governments raise funds for oil&gas, infrastructure and power projects. A great place to learn more about financial modeling, capital markets, project finance and the energy sector. I'm personally mainly interested in renewable energy, but for most of the industrial era and the foreseeable future, fossil fuels have and will play a pivotal role in the economic activities of any industrialized country. So I was happy to learn more about this industry: the major players, the major technologies, the supply chain, the political and social issues etc. I always wanted to know more about it, and it is great to get an insider's view now. I have been working there three days a week from September until December. That was a very short period considering what there is to learn about project finance and energy, so I'll continue working for them this semester.

For my studies I took the courses international business finance, international banking and financial statement analysis. But what's probably more interesting is what I did next to work and study. One great event - from my perspective - was the Dutch celebration of the establishment of New York 400 years ago, when Henry Hudson sailed up what's now called the Hudson River in 1609 and the Dutch established a trading post there. Part of the celebrations was a job-swap between people from New York and people from Amsterdam. First, the Dutch would spend a week with their counterpart in New York, and then the New Yorkers would spend a week in the Netherlands. During these exchanges, they were asked to keep up a blog about their experiences. A friend of mine, who was involved in organizing this program, asked me if I could help out translate some of these blogs. I translated the blogposts of the architect, the bartender, the prosecutor, the farmer, the firefighter and the foodbank employee from English into Dutch. It was great to read about their exchange - their different opinions and backgrounds, their similarities, their enthusiasm about the event. You should certainly take some time to read some of the blogposts. They show how people at two sides of the Atlantic Ocean can share a passion for the same profession, work in different systems, learn from each other and bring back part of the experience back to their job at home. The best part of the story is that, when I went to New York in October, I seized the opportunity to go to Jimmy's no 43, the bar of the New Yorkian bartender. When I told him I had been translating his blogposts, he sat down at our table, got us some great beers (and kept them coming for the rest of the night) and told about his job, the job-swap, food and beer (his passion) and we had a great time.

The next time I went to New York was to celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends of Chloe's (my girlfriend). Thanksgiving is a big thing in the US, so it was nice to experience it with so many people. I guess it's similar to what I'm used to of Christmas - having a nice dinner with family, but not much more. Christmas in the US, though, is very different. After looking forward to it for the whole semester, Chloe and I rented a car and drove to Detroit -the legendary birthplace of assembly-line production and of Chloe. Most of her family still lives there, so she normally celebrates Christmas in Michigan. It was a nine-hour ride through Maryland, past the coal-mines and mountains of Pennsylvania, the plains and the refineries of Ohio and the lakes and industries of Michigan, to eventually arrive in the suburbs of Detroit. It's amazing to see a city that's so spread out, where cars not only represent a vital part of the economy, but also of people's lives. Without a car, it's almost impossible to get anywhere. To go from a suburb to Detroit proper, you have to take the highway for 15-30 minutes, and you barely see anybody walking on the streets of downtown Detroit. In a way it is a gloomy city, with many abandoned factory buildings (mainly from before the current crisis) and foreclosed houses, but at the same time Detroit evokes a kind of pride in people from the area - the pride of being part of American history, contributing to state-of-the-art mechanical engineering and building up ones life with ones own two hands, depicted in the great mural painted in the Detroit Institute of the Arts in 1932. Now that this lifestyle has become more difficult, that pride might have taken a serious blow, but I don't think it will ever disappear.
One example of what Detroit has to offer, despite a lifeless economy, was Cadieux Cafe. There, great Belgian beer was combined with the rock and roll of the Rumpshakers and a Belgian game called feather bowling (or trabollen, in Dutch). It is similar to playing petanque (a french game) on a giant lane, with a feather instead of the small ball and wooden cheese-wheels instead of the larger balls. It was great to see that this unique part of Belgian culture had found its way to Detroit and was now fully integrated in the local people's pass-time.

After Detroit, we drove on to Chicago to visit more family of Chloe. After the view of a tore-down Detroit, driving into Chicago and seeing a beautiful skyline was amazing. Chicago, where some of the world's first skyscrapers were built, has a down-town area with many elaborate high-rise buildings, a beautiful Millennium park and some shiny sculpture known (and shaped as) the Bean. In Chicago we met many great people, enjoyed the lively (but cold) streets, celebrated New Year's eve in a great bar and Chloe's birthday on the 74th floor of the Hancock building and in a Mexican restaurant.

When all that great fun time was over, we drove back to DC in about 12 hours and went back to work the next day. It was a great intermission of the academic year, a great way to meet many great people, and I'm looking forward to going back there some day.

Now on to the last semester of my studies!


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